This is Part 7.
Other recent stories in the "Queer Theories" series.
Go back to "Nowhere Man -- Part 6.
Features Brian Kinney, Ben Bruckner, Ron Rosenblum.
Rated R for language and contains no warnings or spoilers.
Summary: Brian has dinner with an old friend in Pittsburgh. September 2000.
Disclaimer: This is for fun, not profit. Watch Queer As Folk on Showtime, buy the DVDs, videos, and CDs. Read the stories and enjoy.
Tuesday, September 5, 2000, continued:
Brian's friend, Ben Bruckner, was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He was only a little bit older than Brian, but he was everything that Brian was not.
Ben taught in a Gay Studies Program. He was respected by his colleagues. He'd started at Carnegie Mellon right out of grad school and he already had tenure. He was also an Associate Professor well on his way to becoming a Full Professor. Brian, however, seemed to be doomed as a perpetual Assistant Professor -- and, if he moved with Ron out to Los Angeles, he'd be lucky to get even a position as a Lecturer. Ben had also written a couple of books, including a novel, while Brian couldn't get his book finished. Ben was a success in his career, while Brian was still stuck on square one.
Ben was also one of the few people who knew anything about Brian's past. Knew about how he'd left home at sixteen after getting the piss kicked out of him by his father. How he ended up addicted and hustling on the streets of lower Manhattan. And how he'd met Ron, a twenty-five year old student filmmaker making his first documentary. On one of the few occasions when Brian had too much to drink, he'd spilled the whole thing to the sympathetic Ben Bruckner.
It was at a party at a Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago. Brian had just finished his doctorate and was feeling the post-Defense let-down. Ron was in Philadelphia, where he was a Visiting Professor of Film, and Brian was by himself at the conference, presenting a paper in the Gay Literature section. His piece on 'Queer Subjectivity in the Novels of Truman Capote' went okay, but the panel discussion afterwards had been dismal. The old queen who was moderating treated Brian like some piece of fluff and practically shut him down every time he tried to make a point about postmodernism and Queer Theory. He later found out that the other guy on the panel, a pompous ass who read a snooze-inducing paper on 'The Wit of Oscar Wilde' -- now THERE was an uncharted bit of territory -- NOT! -- was the old queen's prize student.
So Brian went to the cocktail party for the Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Transgendered Caucus already feeling shaky. He'd been handed a small sherry when he walked in, but Brian soon found himself at the open bar, downing shots. And his thin body, already battered by lack of sleep and lack of food over the last few months, couldn't handle the impact of all that booze.
Luckily, Ben Bruckner was standing by to catch him when Brian went sliding to the floor. Ben had a room in the hotel where the party was being held and he managed to walk Brian up to it and get him to the bathroom in time for him to vomit all the alcohol back up and out of his system.
Ben used the coffee-maker provided in the room to make a series of strong cups of hot coffee to sober Brian up. But that also meant that the two were up all night, trading life histories. Ben told Brian about his travels in Asia, and especially in Tibet and Nepal, and his interest in Eastern religions. And Brian, perceiving that he was in the presence of a friend, told Ben everything about himself.
It actually felt good to tell someone. Brian realized that he probably should have just gone to confession years ago and gotten it all off his chest. But Ben seemed the next best thing to a priest. Ben was understanding and completely non-judgmental. To Ben, the idea that this accomplished and intellectual, not to mention extremely attractive, man had once been a boy hustler and junkie was amazing. Especially the way he'd been 'rescued' and 'redeemed' by Ron. How he'd made over his entire life. It was the stuff of compelling fiction, Ben thought. In fact, he found Brian's whole story utterly fascinating.
Ben Bruckner also found Brian himself utterly fascinating -- and extremely sexy. Getting Brian into bed had been number one on Ben's agenda when he'd practically carried him from the cocktail party up to his room. But then, when he started to listen to him, Ben backed off. Not from any lessening of attraction, quite the contrary. But Ben Bruckner prided himself as being a man of spirituality and scruples. Brian was at a low point. He wasn't completely sober and he was vulnerable. It would have been an easy fuck, but one Ben would have regretted. And one that would have filled Brian with even more guilt. So, it didn't happen at that MLA Convention. Or at any subsequent meeting. What had begun as a alcohol-fueled pick up had turned into a long term friendship.
And for that Brian would always be grateful. Ben had not taken advantage of him and Brian appreciated it. Because Brian would have been willing. Very willing. He was exhausted by the work he'd done to finish his degree and he was exhausted by Ron's career-obsessed moves. And Ron was already getting ready to make yet another move to Boston, and Brian had to go along with it, even though he was happy in Philadelphia and wanted to stay. So, a little R & R with the hunky Professor Bruckner might have been just what Brian needed -- at that moment.
But when Ben called Brian about three months later to inform him that he'd tested positive for HIV, Brian felt like someone had just walked over his grave. THAT put the fear of God into him about screwing around -- or even THINKING about it! Brian felt as if he'd been given a reprieve and he made certain that he stayed away from the hard liquor AND the horny guys whenever he was away from Ron for a conference. Or away from him for even an hour! Brian broke out in a cold sweat at the thought of what MIGHT have happened -- and made sure that it couldn't -- wouldn't -- in the future.
So, as a friend Ben Bruckner was a godsend. Whenever Brian had to be in Pittsburgh -- especially since his father became ill -- he had a place where he could retreat. Brian and Ben would go out to dinner or just go to Ben's apartment and Brian could vent about his troubles. He could tell Ben things he didn't dare tell to Ron -- mainly because they were about Ron. Especially after the incident with the research assistant in Boston. And now about his father. Ron had already made it clear that he thought Brian was catering to his dysfunctional family way too much. But with Ben, Brian could talk about his fear that his father was dying. And about his frustration with his mother. And his non-relationship with his only sister. Ben was the perfect listener in many ways. And his HIV+ status made him safe. They both knew that a casual fuck would now never be an option. And that made their friendship much easier, drained of the tension Brian often felt around other men who he knew desired him.
Ben took Brian out to the Orchid, which he promised was the best Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh. "As good as anything in New York City," he said, as Ben drove them to the place.
And Brian didn't tell Ben that Thai food was the last thing he really felt like. Because he always connected it with Ron and the place he'd always taken Brian to in New York when they lived there. Brian wanted to say, please -- Polish, Mexican, even a hamburger! Anything but Thai! But Brian didn't say anything. He was used to burying his own wishes in the face of someone with a stronger will, a stronger purpose.
The Orchid was very nice. Beautiful, even. And the food WAS good. But Brian wasn't thinking of food. He was thinking of what he'd tell Ben about his recent relationship difficulties. How much? And with how much emotion? Between the appetizers and the main courses, Brian plunged ahead and told him what had happened between him and his partner.
Ben sighed at the end of the recital. "I've said it before, Brian -- you HAVE to make your own life separate from Ron's life. You know that. You've known it for a long time. And it's been getting bad the past few years -- and will only get worse in the future!"
"I know, Ben," said Brian, with a defeated air. "I know it's been happening, but what can I do? He just ignores me when I try to talk about it. And then, as I'm walking out the door -- THAT is when he wants to talk!"
"It isn't going to do any good, Brian. Unless you both get some kind of couples therapy." Ben prided himself on practical solutions.
But Brian only shook his head. "Right! Like he's really going to go along with that shit! You know Ron. He'll end up psychoanalyzing the therapist! You know what he used to do with his analyst in Boston? He used to second guess him all the time! And that guy studied in Geneva with some student of Jung's. Ron has written papers on Freud and Psychoanalytic Film Theory, so he's not going to buy anything some guy with an M.A. in counseling and a clipboard is going to tell him about 'our' relationship! He 'invented' our relationship! And I guess that means he can do what he wants with it. And with ME."
"You've had these blow ups before, you know, Brian. But you've always made up with him." Now it was Ben's turn to shake his head. He never understood how his desirable friend could surrender himself so completely to a man who treated him so badly.
"I know," Brian admitted. "But it feels different this time. Like something has really changed. Like I have really changed. I never, ever walked out before. And I don't know if I WANT to make up with him."
"You were leaving to come here anyway, Brian," Ben pointed out. "That might have made it easier to feel like you were really walking out. But if you hadn't been coming to Pittsburgh, would you actually have left? And where would you have gone?"
"I don't know, Ben. I really don't know." And Brian DIDN'T know. In fact, he'd already thought about it long and hard on that dusty drive across Indiana and Ohio. There WAS nowhere else for him to go.
"Brian -- Ron must already know that he's made a big, big mistake. Why else has he been trying to call you constantly? And trying to enlist your mother -- of all people -- on his side to get you to come back?"
"How can you be sure he wants me to come back? He probably just wants to know the name of the dry cleaner so he can pick up his laundry. That's mainly what I'm good for these days, I guess." Brian poked at his Pad Thai Noodles, thinking that he'd never been less hungry.
"Brian, try to focus on the problem and not get sidetracked. You know Ron's calling because he finally wants to talk. This might be a good way to get him to agree to some kind of therapy."
Brian coughed out a bitter laugh. "It won't happen, Ben! He can agree until the cows come home, but that doesn't mean he'll really go through with it when the time comes. There will be some excuse and then that will be it." Brian's mouth felt as dry as cotton, so he gulped down some mineral water, almost choking. He could hardly even swallow.
"Insist on it! Insist that he commit to getting help and then make him do it!"
"Ben, Ron is constantly making promises to me that he doesn't keep. Promises to stop taking me for granted. Promises that we'll stay in one place for a change. Promises that he'll... stop cheating on me. This whole counseling thing would be forgotten the minute he promised to do it. But the problem will still be as bad as it ever was. And I'll trudge along, waiting for the NEXT humiliation -- until I finally end up like my goddamn MOTHER!"
"Brian, it doesn't have to be that way."
"Then what other way, Ben?"
"I don't know. That's for YOU to discover. Maybe this IS a good thing to happen at this time. It gives you a little time to yourself. And time to make a decision without Ron putting pressure on you."
"As long as the telephone exists, the pressure will be there, believe me."
"You HAVE to separate yourself, Brian! It's the only way. You've resented Ron for a long time, even if it's only unconsciously. Then you try to get out from under his shadow even a little bit -- but he only puts the screws down all the tighter on you. It's a vicious cycle."
"I know. But what choice do I have? I wouldn't even have my goddamn job if it wasn't for Ron!"
"You have to finish your book, Brian. You need it for your academic reputation. You already have good standing with your students and colleagues, but you know the score, Brian. You NEED those publications. You need them to be taken seriously for yourself. And following Ron around forever on his world tour is never going to do it."
"Tell me something I don't know, Ben!" Brian could picture the future as an endless procession of following Ron like a dutiful shadow. "The damn spousal hire! Forever! But how can I go off on my own? I don't have any money. I don't have a job that isn't dependent on Ron -- and I'm not likely to get one any time soon, not the way the academic market is right now. Besides, I can't just say 'the hell with you' to him. Not after twelve years."
"Why not?" Ben asked, gently.
"It isn't that easy. You wouldn't say that it is if you were in a relationship, Ben. You just wouldn't."
"I don't know what I'd say, Brian, but I do know that if I were as unhappy as you are, I'd do something. I'd try to make my own life. Maybe look for a job on my own -- even if it takes a while or isn't exactly what you want. It's at least a start." Ben leaned across the table at Brian. "I might even go out and have a little fun."
"Fun? What does fun have to do with anything?"
"A lot. You might make a few friends of your own. People who are NOT appendages of your partner."
"And where would I meet these people? Ron and I are practically the only fags in town!"
"I doubt THAT, Brian!"
"You know what I mean, Ben! I just don't even know how to meet anyone. Or if I even want to."
Ben gestured for the waiter to bring him another cold Thai beer. "Go to a bar now and then. Hook up on occasion -- if you feel like it. Come on! A million guys must hit on you, Brian. As long as you're careful, why not?" Ben wondered if his friend was even aware of the fact that the very attractive Asian waiter had been trying to catch Brian's eye all evening. But Brian seemed oblivious.
"That's bullshit, Ben! I can't believe you'd suggest that fucking around is the answer to my troubles with Ron, especially after what happened to you."
"Yes, but I was NOT fucking around at the time. I was with one guy, but it still happened. I thought HE wasn't fucking around either. I was trusting, like you have been. THAT is how I was infected. Or how I didn't protect myself against getting infected. That's something you can never be certain of -- depending on another person to protect YOU. You can only be safe all the time. And with everyone. I mean it, Brian."
"I know you're right." Brian toyed with his glass of water, wishing he had the nerve to order a real drink. "But you don't know Ron. You don't know how he can turn it all around and make it seem like YOU are the guilty one. He's always been able to do that to me. I don't know how. He's always checked up on me, right from the beginning. He has NEVER trusted me -- at least I felt that he didn't. Even just walking up to the corner to mail a damn letter is like facing the Inquisition! And all because he 'loves' me and wants to 'protect' me! But I feel like I'm suffocating."
"That's not love, Brian. That's obsessive behavior. It isn't the way a relationship has to be." Ben looked at Brian with concern his eyes. "When are you going to wake up and realize how you are being manipulated?"
"Wake up and do what?" Brian now sensed that he was falling into a major funk. He'd hoped that his dinner with Ben would cheer him up, but now he felt even worse. Brian put down his fork and gave up even trying to pretend to eat. "And even worse than all that -- now I have to worry again, about... about... Fuck! I'll have to get tested again! And worry about it for another six months! And HE doesn't even give it a fucking thought!"
"Brian, that's so wrong! What is the matter with him!"
"Oh, he throws out this line to me that he's always safe with anyone else. THAT is supposed to reassure me? With anyone else! Like there are a lot! And there could be. I... just don't know the truth."
"Never trust anyone else with your life, Brian. You KNOW that!"
"Oh, but he's 'safe.' You think I really believe that? Knowing Ron? Knowing how he HATES using condoms? It's a joke!"
"Does Ron really think he's so invincible that it can't happen to him?"
"Yes!" Brian almost shouted. "He DOES think that! He thinks nothing could happen to HIM! Because HE isn't some promiscuous fag -- in HIS estimation. Because HE isn't 'Disco Trash'!"
"And I wasn't Disco Trash when I tested positive -- and neither was the guy I was with," Ben said grimly.
"I know. I know! Shit." Brian stared down at his plate. "Excuse me, Ben." And he got up and left the table.
Ben considered going after him, but then decided to stay where he was. Part of Brian's problem was that everyone had something to say to him. Their 'two cents.' An opinion, wanted or unwanted. Usually Ron, but also Brian's parents, Ron's mother, his colleagues. Yes, even Ben. The guy had no room to breathe. Ben decided that cornering him in the men's room while he was obviously having a panic attack wasn't the best thing he could do for his friend. He called the waiter over.
Finally, Brian came back to the table. He looked pale and shaky.
"Did you take a pill? A Xanax?"
Brian shook his head. "No. Maybe later, back at the motel."
Ben handed him a glass. "Drink this. Slowly."
"I don't have the hiccups, Ben. I don't need any more water."
"I know. But it may help."
Brian took a sip. "What is this? Vodka?"
"Absolut. I ordered it while you were in the bathroom. You don't have to drink it all, but drinking a little wouldn't hurt.
And Brian did drink a little. Then a little more. He felt the warmth go through him. "I don't really need to get drunk right now."
"And I'm not trying to get you drunk, Brian. But it may steady your nerves."
"Right. Cheers." He drank until he felt flushed. Then he set the glass down and pushed it away. "I still have to drive, Ben."
Ben leaned over the table. "I know. But I also want you to know that if you ever need a place to decompress, for a day or a week or a month, you're welcome to stay with me. Anytime. For as long as you need to do it. I'm serious, Brian."
"Just as a friend. That's all."
"You SAY that, Ben, but I know how you feel. And I... I just don't... Shit! I don't know what I feel. About anything." Brian rubbed his forehead, pushing his hair back. Ben might say he just wanted to be a friend, but there was more going on there. There always had been. And Brian wasn't ready for a step like that. Not at all. Especially when he was so conflicted about Ron.
As much as he was attracted to Ben, and as good as it might feel tonight, Brian knew that he would feel awful in the morning. Not only would it complicate any decision that Brian had to make about Ron, it would also screw up his friendship with Ben. Brian knew that. If they slept together it would never be the same between them.
"I have to think about everything, Ben," Brian finally said. "And I have to determine if it's even possible to make it work with Ron. Jeez, I have half my life invested there! I can't just toss it away without thinking long and hard."
"Why, Brian? Ron obviously didn't give it much thought when he did what HE did!" The bitterness was creeping into Ben's voice now.
"I have to," Brian replied. "I owe him that much." Funny how it was always about what Brian owed. That emotional debt that only seemed to grow with each passing year.
They finished dinner -- or rather Ben finished his dinner and Brian pushed his around his plate -- without saying much more. Brian just wanted to get back to the motel and fall into bed. He thought of the long, depressing day ahead of him tomorrow. Probably one of the worse days of his life, Brian thought, if the news about his father was really as bad as he suspected.
Brian said goodbye to Ben at the restaurant. He thanked him for being such a good and caring friend, but he also turned down an offer to go back to Ben's place for more 'talk.' That wasn't in the cards. At least not for now.
Brian drove back to his motel room and got undressed. He tried to relax. He thought about taking a Xanax, but he stopped himself. He still felt that he could handle things and he didn't want to have to rely on the drug -- especially when he couldn't get any refills any time soon. Unless he went back home and went into therapy again. Which meant that Brian had given in and admitted that HE was the one with the 'problem.' Ron would agree with THAT assessment, certainly. And things would go back to 'normal' -- until the next time.
Brian still had his cellphone turned off, so when the motel phone rang he was pretty sure about who it was on the other end.
"What the fuck are you doing in a motel, Brian? Why aren't you staying with your parents? And where have you been all evening? Where?"
"I've been out to eat. With Ben Bruckner."
"I KNEW it!" Ron exploded. "I KNEW that guy would be lying in wait for you! Brian, he's HIV POSITIVE! You KNOW that!"
Brian held the phone away from his ear. "I only ate dinner with Ben, Ron, I didn't fuck him. So leave it alone. He's my friend. And that's all." Brian's eyes were burning and he just wanted to close them and pull the sheet over his head. "So why are you starting this shit again -- long distance?"
"I'm not starting anything!" Ron sounded on the verge of hysteria. He'd likely been pacing up and down the length of the house, working himself up into a frenzy for hours while Brian was out to dinner. "I'm fucking worried about you! You won't answer your phone! You hide yourself away in a strange city! You aren't behaving rationally! And you wonder why I'm worried?"
"I'm all right. There's no need to worry. Pittsburgh is NOT a strange city, Ron. It's my home town. My family is here. I grew up here. Now please just let me get some sleep." Brian wondered what would happen if he just hung up. Ron would probably call the police. Or get into his car and drive straight to Pittsburgh. "Goodnight, Ron."
"Aren't we going to talk about this, Brian?"
"I thought we talked already!" said Brian, exasperated. "Before I left Indiana."
"You were overwrought then, Brian! You weren't thinking clearly! You STILL aren't thinking clearly! Obviously!"
"Why 'obviously'? I'm not thinking clearly simply because I'm not agreeing with you? I'm 'overwrought' because I'm daring to challenge you? Fuck you, Ron, and let me go to sleep. I have a long day tomorrow with my father at the doctor."
"I know," said Ron, smugly. "I had a long talk with your mother earlier. And she agrees that you are definitely not acting like yourself."
Now Brian was really speechless. "You? Talked to my mother? Tonight?"
"This evening. When I couldn't get hold of you. Your mother and I always talk, Brian. Especially about you. You just don't want to know about it. She's very distressed that you are flying off the handle about some silly misunderstanding. She agrees with me that you need to take care of this business with your dad and then come right home and work things out. Which I'm sure you are planning to do."
"Misunderstanding? You and my mother call YOU screwing around a 'misunderstanding'? What is it about you and Lowell that I have misunderstood, Ron?"
"This isn't about Lowell, Brian. This is about a lot MORE than just Lowell."
"Oh? About MORE than Lowell, huh? Maybe about how there are MORE guys than just him lurking around, Ron ? Is THAT it?"
"That's NOT what I meant -- and you know it! Brian, now you're jumping to ridiculous conclusions!"
"Ron -- I didn't realize you had such amazing stamina! How many guys ARE you fucking at this time? Maybe I'm not giving you enough credit. Maybe it's another Viagra Miracle!" Ron was obsessed with his sex drive almost as much as he was obsessed with Brian. And both of those preoccupations seemed to be on the wane recently.
"Don't be a bitch, Brian!" Ron lashed out.
"I'm hanging up. NOW." And Brian slammed the phone down. It rang again immediately.
"Don't do that, Brian," said Ron, peevishly. "It's childish."
"So, I'm an immature brat! So, spank me!" Brian responded. "You might get into that."
"Brian -- please be reasonable," Ron's voice was softer now. Pleading. "Don't... hang up on me." His voice was breaking. "Please. Brian?"
Now Ron seemed to be changing his tone. Before he had been belligerent. Now he sounded desperate. But Brian just listened. He was too exhausted to argue. Too exhausted to continue this well into the night.
"Brian? Are you there? Please speak to me! BRIAN!"
"Too little, too late, Ron. Goodnight." And Brian put the phone down gently.
And it didn't ring again that night.
Continue on to "Nowhere Man -- Part 8.
©Gaedhal, October 2002
Posted October 26, 2002